Sept. 23, 2003
by Simit Shah
Ask anyone who has one, and they’ll tell you that a degree from Georgia Tech is something special. It’s much more than a certificate of completion; it represents years of hard work, determination and commitment.
While degrees have proved elusive for many students over the years, the Georgia Tech Athletic Association is helping former student-athletes complete their journey towards a diploma with its degree completion program.
The program is designed for former athletes who are within reach of a degree (one or two semesters, typically) but have exhausted their eligibility. Often, the participants are those who left school early to pursue professional careers and now want to come back to school.
As part of the degree completion program, the Athletic Association covers the cost of tuition, while the participants work as interns in various athletic departments. Their work schedule is dictated by the number of registered course hours, so if a student is taking 12 hours of classes, he or she works the same amount of time at their internship each week.
“It gives them a good opportunity to get work experience,” said senior associate director of athletics Mary McElroy, who has headed the program the last few years.
“We have the supervisors treat them as employees, requiring them to come to work, requiring them to dress a certain way, things like that. When they get their degree, they are able to use the experience as a job reference.”
A number of coaches, basetball coach Danny Hall and basketball coach Paul Hewitt, in particular, as well as Letterwinners’ Club director Lucius Stanford, have made a concerted effort to encourage former athletes to enroll in the program. There are usually a handful of participants each semester, and there has been steady growth.
“Once they are finished playing, I make that next phone to get them back in school,” said Hall, who has been able to convince the majority of his players to return. “The credit goes to the Athletic Association. This program shows that they are serious about helping athletes graduate.”
Potential candidates first have to gain readmission through the school, and then apply for the program with the Athletic Association. The guidelines for reimbursement differ slightly based on how long an applicant has been out of school.
Former pitcher Chuck Crowder is among the current participants in the program. After a stellar collegiate career from 1996-99, the two-time all-American was a fourth-round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies in 1999. After four years in the minors, Crowder decided to come back to finish his management degree.
“Getting a degree is very important to me,” he said. “That’s why I came to school in the first place, instead of going pro out of high school.”
Crowder’s work assignment is in the sports information office. He’s on track to earn his degree next semester, but he’s still adjusting to being back in school.
“It’s strange, especially since I’m about to turn 27,” Crowder said. “I’m definitely ‘dating’ myself in some of my classes. It’s been a while since I’ve been a student, doing things like writing papers and studying every night. That’s the hard part.”
Crowder has developed camaraderie with former teammates Heath Honeycutt and Scott Prather, who are also back in school after pro careers.
McElroy noted that the program participants have usually benefited from their time away from school, and they appreciate the importance of getting a degree.
“That’s why the majority are serious about being students this time,” she said.
Crowder echoed those sentiments. “It’s a lot different, and you take class a lot more seriously. Without baseball, you have a lot more time to devote to academics. Actually, my grades are much better.”
Another current participant is former women’s basketball standout Milli Martinez, who is now playing professional basketball in Puerto Rico.
A pair of current professional athletes have recently earned degrees. Basketball player Jason Collier, member of the Houston Rockets of the NBA since 2000, graduated over the summer. Former Tech football standout Nick Rogers now plays for the Minnesota Vikings. After playing his rookie season in the NFL in 2002, he returned to Atlanta to complete his coursework last spring, earning his degree in May. Nick wasn’t the only member of his family to hang a sheepskin on his wall last spring; his brother Phillip, also a former Yellow Jacket football player and a 2000 Tech graduate, earned his MBA from Fordham University.
Another recent beneficiary of the degree completion program is Ryan Stewart, who is now a popular radio personality on Atlanta’s 790 The Zone. After finishing his Tech career in 1995, “Stew” played several years for the NFL’s Detroit Lions. In the offseason, he returned to school and graduated in 1998.
“I’m not going to lie; at the time, it was very hard to make myself go back to school in the offseason, but getting my degree is the best thing I ever did,” said Stewart.
“It’s a success story for us,” stated McElroy. “First and foremost, we want to see our student-athletes graduate. I hate to see them leave without the degree, because I know that it is so hard to come back to school. “I cannot imagine leaving Tech, knowing how tough it is, with a degree uncompleted, but this program helps make it a little easier for them to come back.”